Clear and Opaque
By Cassius Epps
The year my father died, the reindeer started marching. Two by two, they hopped down the branches of the tree, skipping from ornament to light bulb. Each one would jump from the final pine needle and glide, like tissue, to the floor.
I watched them prance as their hooves made noises like vibrating champagne glasses against the brick floor of the fireplace. For every Clear mammal was an Opaque companion. They would stop occasionally to nuzzle one another.
It didn’t take long for all of them to surround me, grazing the carpet as they kept me company.
My mother all but disappeared at the same time as my father. The day she arrived home from the police station, she stumbled past me, cradled in the nook of my grandmother’s arm, never settling too long on my face. She locked herself in her room. I sat outside the door, waiting to hear her cry.
The first night, I fell asleep at the foot of her threshold. My grandmother moved me, but I returned the next morning. And that became my routine.
I sat every morning until the sun became fully awake and it became clear that nothing had changed. Some days, I’d hear tears. She’d even come out a few times. Those were the days I feared. Seeing her swollen eyes, her body on autopilot, thin hair, and feeling my own hope rise that I might be able to capture her with my presence. Maybe with enough love, a cute trick. Maybe if I gave her the treats my granny gave me.
When winter arrived, my grandmother decorated the apartment. She took care, which was wildly outside her character, to place each ornament delicately on the tree. Concern pressed her eyebrows together when a ball tilted or when cavernous spaces between decorations made themselves apparent.
The reindeer seemed to balance themselves. When she turned her back, they moved to more comfortable spaces. They smiled when the room was dim. When the tree was lit, though, they assumed positions of majesty.
The first week of December, I left my post at my mother’s door only to examine the tree, curious at how the trinkets were managing themselves.
My grandmother sat at the dining table behind me, worrying and stirring honey into her coffee with a fork. When the teeth hit the side of her mug, the deer wriggled their noses in the air. The light flickered through their snouts and seemed to sign hieroglyphs between oxygen particles, burning indescribable images in my mind.
Soon, Granny had to go back to work. Those first few days, my mother came out of her room to watch me. Her body language plastered an assemblage of rules across the walls like Martin Luther. I was not to touch her, not to speak to her unnecessarily, not to make too much noise.
The television was off, so I read. I thought I was somehow gaming the system by reading near her and cutting peaks at her from the corner of my eye. After a week, she was gone again, only leaving her room long enough to see my grandmother’s car pull out of the lot.
I tailed her to her room, an army of deer followed quietly behind. I waited for her door to close before I sat, legs crossed, and waited for her return.
The deer kept me entertained. They pranced in the fibers on the floor, and played with one another. I fell asleep watching them and they nudged me awake, just in time for them to get back into their positions on the tree without my grandmother seeing them.
A week before Christmas, there was another loss in the family. The deer were playing. They were running in formations, creating spinning wheels, snowflakes, and crowns. The fluorescence of the hallway bulb turned them blue. Opaques created borders between Clears and shifted the direction of the light. The resulting glow was like a brighter sky without the sun, warmth without the fear of being burned.
When they tired themselves out, they morphed into a crowd, wandering listlessly past one another. As energy rebuilt, they moved faster, more erratically, seemingly unsure of how to maneuver.
It came to a death. An opaque tripped and crashed into the wall. It shattered into vaporous pieces. His Clear sniffed at the space where his body was scattered before slinking back into the fray. I heard movement from my mother’s room and held my breath, sure we’d be caught. Nothing came, but I waited until I wasn’t sure that I’d heard a noise at all.
Granny arrived home that day without noticing there was an ornament missing. Only I was aware that my deer friends were in mourning. They didn’t move when Granny’s back was turned. The next morning was a Saturday but their noses remained still as her fork rubbed against her mug.
When I finished my shift at the door, I walked to the tree, unsure of what I might find. Granny forgot to turn it on before she left.
None of the deer wore their usual smiles in the dark. I could hear a noise, faint but persistent, the sound of two diamonds being run down the length of a window.
I got closer to the tree, knowing where I might find the source. The Clear who’d been left alone was wailing. I cried at the thought that maybe this was the sound that had kept my mother in bed all this time.
About Cassius Epps:
Epps (all pronouns welcome) is an MFA graduate student at Purdue University, an internet scholar, and a lover of pedagogy. He can most often—especially when there are papers to be graded—be found on twitter (@theeauthoress) delving a little too deeply into pop culture and sending tweets that no one pays attention to.